The Microsoft Police State: Mass Surveillance, Facial Recognition, and the Azure Cloud

(Intercept) - Microsoft helps police surveil and patrol communities through its own offerings and a network of partnerships — while its PR efforts obscure this.

The Microsoft Police State: Mass Surveillance, Facial Recognition, and the Azure Cloud

NATIONWIDE PROTESTS AGAINST racist policing have brought new scrutiny onto big tech companies like Facebook, which is under boycott by advertisers over hate speech directed at people of color, and Amazon, called out for aiding police surveillance. But Microsoft, which has largely escaped criticism, is knee-deep in services for law enforcement, fostering an ecosystem of companies that provide police with software using Microsoft’s cloud and other platforms. The full story of these ties highlights how the tech sector is increasingly entangled in intimate, ongoing relationships with police departments.

Microsoft’s links to law enforcement agencies have been obscured by the company, whose public response to the outrage that followed the murder of George Floyd has focused on facial recognition software. This misdirects attention away from Microsoft’s own mass surveillance platform for cops, the Domain Awareness System, built for the New York Police Department and later expanded to Atlanta, Brazil, and Singapore. It also obscures that Microsoft has partnered with scores of police surveillance vendors who run their products on a “Government Cloud” supplied by the company’s Azure division and that it is pushing platforms to wire police field operations, including drones, robots, and other devices.

With partnership, support, and critical infrastructure provided by Microsoft, a shadow industry of smaller corporations provide mass surveillance to law enforcement agencies. Genetec offers cloud-based CCTV and big data analytics for mass surveillance in major U.S. cities. Veritone provides facial recognition services to law enforcement agencies. And a wide range of partners provide high-tech policing equipment for the Microsoft Advanced Patrol Platform, which turns cop cars into all-seeing surveillance patrols. All of this is conducted together with Microsoft and hosted on the Azure Government Cloud.

Last month, hundreds of Microsoft employees petitioned their CEO, Satya Nadella, to cancel contracts with law enforcement agencies, support Black Lives Matter, and endorse defunding the police. In response, Microsoft ignored the complaint and instead banned sales of its own facial recognition software to police in the United States, directing eyes away from Microsoft’s other contributions to police surveillance. The strategy worked: The press and activists alike praised the move, reinforcing Microsoft’s said position as a moral leader in tech.

Yet it’s not clear how long Microsoft will escape major scrutiny. Policing is increasingly done with active cooperation from tech companies, and Microsoft, along with Amazon and other cloud providers, is one of the major players in this space.

Because partnerships and services hosting third party vendors on the Azure cloud do not have to be announced to the public, it is impossible to know full extent of Microsoft’s involvement in the policing domain, or the status of publicly announced third party services, potentially including some of the previously announced relationships mentioned below.

Microsoft declined to comment.

Microsoft: From Police Intelligence to the Azure Cloud

In the wake of 9/11, Microsoft made major contributions to centralized intelligence centers for law enforcement agencies. Around 2009, it began working on a surveillance platform for the NYPD called the Domain Awareness System, or DAS, which was unveiled to the public in 2012. The system was built with leadership from Microsoft along with NYPD officers.

While some details about the DAS have been disclosed to the public, many are still missing. The most comprehensive account to date appeared in a 2017 paper by NYPD officers.

The DAS integrates disparate sources of information to perform three core functions: real-time alerting, investigations, and police analytics.

Through the DAS, the NYPD watches the personal movements of the entire city. In its early days, the system ingested information from closed-circuit TV cameras, environmental sensors (to detect radiation and dangerous chemicals), and automatic license plate readers, or ALPRs. By 2010, it began adding geocoded NYPD records of complaints, arrests, 911 calls, and warrants “to give context to the sensor data.” Thereafter, it added video analytics, automatic pattern recognition, predictive policing, and a mobile app for cops.

By 2016, the system had ingested 2 billion license plate images from ALPR cameras (3 million reads per day, archived for five years), 15 million complaints, more than 33 billion public records, over 9,000 NYPD and privately operated camera feeds, videos from 20,000-plus body cameras, and more. To make sense of it all, analytics algorithms pick out relevant data, including for predictive policing.

The NYPD has a history of police abuse, and civil rights and liberties advocates like Urban Justice Center’s Surveillance Technology Oversight Project have protested the system out of constitutional concerns, with little success to date.

While the DAS has received some attention from the press — and is fairly well-known among activists — there is more to the story of Microsoft policing services.

Over the years, Microsoft has grown its business through the expansion of its cloud services, in which storage capacity, servers, and software running on servers are rented out on a metered basis. One of its offerings, Azure Government, provides dedicated data hosting in exclusively domestic cloud centers so that the data never physically leaves the host country. In the U.S., Microsoft has built several Azure Government cloud centers for use by local, state, and federal organizations.

Unbeknownst to most people, Microsoft has a “Public Safety and Justice” division with staff who formerly worked in law enforcement. This is the true heart of the company’s policing services, though it has operated for years away from public view.

Microsoft’s police surveillance services are often opaque because the company sells little in the way of its own policing products. It instead offers an array of “general purpose” Azure cloud services, such as machine learning and predictive analytics tools like Power BI (business intelligence) and Cognitive Services, which can be used by law enforcement agencies and surveillance vendors to build their own software or solutions.